The next retro-futuristic indie drama set in space has just found its soundtrack. That soundtrack is Broken Bells’ sophomore album After the Disco, which dropped on Feb. 4. Super-talented, ultra-eccentric producer Brian Burton (also known as Danger Mouse) and The Shins frontman James Mercer came together to produce their slick, eclectic self-titled debut in 2010. After experimental EP Meyrin Fields hit iTunes in 2012, it became clear that these two were aspiring to be a real band with a unique, distinctive sound. For After the Disco, they honed that sound perfectly, creating a niche within a niche.
After the Disco may bend (and blend) several genres, but the result is more or less consistent – maybe even a little too consistent. Musically, it’s a pretty upbeat collection of songs, but the lyrics do tackle some heavy stuff.
The album starts with the ironic, even oxymoronic opener “Perfect World.” Mercer sets the tone when he croons, “I’ve got nothing left / It’s kind of wonderful / ‘Cause there’s nothing they can take away.” Here, as in many places on the album, the lyrics are as beautiful and haunting as Mercer’s falsetto. The title track is similarly layered: It’s definitely got that disco vibe, but it’s surprisingly sad and sweet for such groovy, gleaming song production.
The smooth, even elevator music-esque “Medicine” would have gone well with the tracks on Broken Bells’ self-titled debut, but “No Matter What You’re Told” is a little less clean, with more distortion and more emotion – at least on the angst-filled choruses. “Leave It Alone” is bluesy and has a little gospel to it. It’s almost like an electronic influence of a song from The Black Keys.
Rarely does any particular influence come through so strong. In general, this album treads on new territory, and the result is a sound that is often tentative and ambiguous. But the driving, urging choruses of “Control” are as confident as they are catchy.
If all of After the Disco belongs in an outer space movie, then lead single “Holding On for Life” is the one that makes it to the previews. Conveniently, the band has already made a series of short films and a “Holding On for Life” music video fitting this description, so much of the future producer’s work is already done.
Album closer “The Remains of Rock and Roll” has ambitious aims, but the sweeping instrumentals – if you could call them that – imply that it will be a great and important conclusion. And yet the wandering melody leaves the listener feeling that there was no conclusion at all. Intentional? Maybe. Frustrating? You bet.
This record’s biggest weakness may be that it is actually too much of an improvement over Broken Bells’ previous full-length effort. While that record is a collection of (albeit very good) songs that don’t all necessarily hang together perfectly, this one is so consistent – just too consistent. At its heart, it is a marriage of sci-fi pop and dance rock. The songs are fantastic, but the LP as a whole is not ideal for repeated listens, as it is ultimately stifled, even suffocated by its hyper-specific criteria.
Anyway, space is pretty awesome, but it’s also silent. Does it really need a soundtrack?